Category Archives: food security

Food systems are adapting to the pandemic … so far

Following the Nourish Scotland conference in November 2019, the Living Field began thinking about how it might best support those working towards a sustainable future for food and agriculture [1]. Then early in 2020 the pandemic hit, raising searching questions as to whether the food system could cope.

In March 2020, Pete Ritchie from Nourish Scotland, wrote a blog [2] putting the case that once the initial panic has receded, the international food system would adapt, the empty shelves would be re-stocked and no one in this country ought to go hungry. Nourish, through their blogs, web sites and conferences are at pains to point out that no one should go hungry in the UK because of shortage of food. Where they are hungry or malnourished, it would be due to other factors, such as social inequality, not the amount of food available.

Nourish were correct, but they were not giving the thumbs up to the current state. The blog writes that the food system – “ … generates massive environmental damage, monumental food waste, exploitative work practices and a disastrous mismatch between what we need to eat for health and what we are being sold.”

Dysfunction and mismatch are not simply other people’s problems. The blog continues – “ …..it would be good if Scotland were to produce more of what it eats, and eat more of what it produces.”

The argument raises the greater issue of the choices that can be made – whether to create a more equitable food system or stay with the current dysfunctional mix of hunger and plenty. Analysis by the Food Foundation [3] indicates the pandemic is driving more people into malnutrition and hunger: the food is there, but unaffordable or out of reach.  

Yet on the continuity of supply during the pandemic, the food system has adapted. Would the same be true following any global emergency?

The food-feed system is resilient ….. but it could fail catastrophically

The food system supplying Scotland and the UK was able to recover because of particular features of this pandemic. Farming and food stocks in most parts of the world have been little affected so far. With some exceptions, channels for imported food have remained open. It is too soon to say whether more will be restricted if lockdown and social distancing continue, but the chances are they will not be. However, other global crises could have far greater consequences.  

Imagine if imports had been shut off. The Food Atlas [4] produced by Nourish Scotland in 2018 shows the country’s reliance on imports. While some food supply chains can be satisfied by local produce, those supplying the staple carbohydrates, plant protein and vegetables are particularly vulnerable.

  • Scotland almost entirely relies on imports for staple, healthy carbohydrates. (The UK is less reliant but still has a major deficit.) The main local crops providing carbs are oats and potato, but on current areas they could not ensure sufficiency. Bread in particular – almost none of the bread we eat in Scotland is grown here. Nearly all other cereal carbohydrates are grown outside the UK (pasta, rice). Yet the country’s arable land could grow all the staple carbs needed.
  • Pulses – peas and beans – are, with cereal carbohydrate, the staple food of all settled civilisations. As for cereals, most pulse food is imported (e.g. canned baked beans) as is most pulse feed for livestock and farmed fish (e.g. soy bean from the Americas).
  • Vegetables – about half the vegetables eaten in Scotland are produced in the UK, most of the rest being grown in the EU or elsewhere.

If imports had been closed down, the country would be in trouble. Could this happen? There are two main possible causes: the food is there but imports are stopped, for example, by blockade due to international hostilities; or the food is not there to buy, because the countries producing it keep it themselves or have suffered a catastrophe in their producing regions (e.g. ash from volcanic eruption). Both have happened in the past. They will happen again.

It’s the balance that preserves

After the food insecurities the 1940s, a post-war Agricultural Expansion Programme was initiated to raise production and shift the balance more towards grain than grass. The programme worked, aided by technological advances in machinery, agronomy and crop yield potential.  Yet within a few decades, the country came to export much of its agricultural production and was again dependent on imports for food.

In an uncertain world, a country needs to keep its borders open for trade, both ways. But it also needs to ensure it can feed itself if it has to. The balance needs to be redrawn: local production raised, more food grown than feedstocks for alcohol and livestock, with a shift in emphasis to ‘building’ rather than degrading the agro-ecosystem. All this is possible.

An extended version of this article is published at Food security in the pandemic. More on the food system is available online [7, 8].

Sources, links

[1] Nourish Conference 2019 – Lessons for the Living Field.

[2] Nourish Scotland. Making the food supply chain work for everyone. By Pete Ritchie, 24 March 2020.

[3] The Food Foundation published some recent statistics on 22 May 2020: Food insecurity and debt are the new reality under lockdown.

[4] Nourish Scotland’s Food Atlas: http://www.nourishscotland.org/resources/food-atlas/

[5] To find out more about local food systems, search these organisations:

[6] Examples of relevant articles on the Living Field web site: City University’s food systems diagram: Five spheres around the food chain. Ten crops from three continents make this simple meal: Beans on Toast revisited. Barley, oats and wheat: Three-grain resilience in Atlantic zone agriculture.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk or geoff.squire@outlook.com

The Crunch at Dundee Science Centre

Meet the Expert day at Dundee Science Centre, 10 September 2016, part of The Crunch series of public events on sustainable agriculture and food, showcased two of our topics – Roots of Nutrition and Grain to Plate.

It was hands-on for the younger visitors – they donned lab coats, peered into test tubes, felt grain and rolled dough.  The not quite so young shared experiences on topical issues of food and health.

lf_crnch_16sep10_1_gs_1100The team from the Hutton were based in the darkened auditorium, partly to enable slideshows to be viewed on computer screens, but there was enough light to get some images (above).

Roots of Nutrition Main themes are that humans need at least 18 mineral nutrients and thirteen vitamins; but many diets lack iron, calcium or iodine, or the Vitamins A, C or D, causing ‘hidden hunger’ and poor health. Plants provide most of these minerals and vitamins; they take minerals from the soil and make vitamins in their tissues. There are direct links therefore between soil, plants and health. Peoples’ wellbeing can be improved by good soil and crop management.  Science can breed crop varieties that take up minerals from low concentration in soil. Gardening and farming can provide the wide range of foods that between them contain all the necessary minerals and vitamins.

Grain to Plate Main themes are that grain (or corn) crops, mainly barley and wheat, and later oat, were first brought here by migrants over 5000 years ago. Grains have sustained most people and their animals since then, at least up to the second half of the last century when imported grain began to replace home-grown. Today, most of our cereal carbohydrate is grown in other places. Oats is the only one grown, processed and eaten locally. It also needs less mineral fertiliser and pesticide than wheat. Yet more cereals could be grown locally for human food. Examples of bread made from barley, wheat and spelt were on display …. and here ‘s an idea for the future – bread made from insect flour! How would agriculture look farming insects instead of sheep and cows!

On the day …..

Roots of Nutrition: Philip White, Paula Pongrac and Konrad Neugebauer. Grain to plate: Gill Banks, Lauren Banks, Geoff Squire.

Thanks to Aisha and all at the Science Centre for organising the event.

More Crunch on this web site: Bere and cricket, Feel the Pulse.

For general info on Hutton Crunch exhibits email geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Feel the pulse

With Dundee Science Centre, the James Hutton Institute is  contributing to a range of outreach activities in 2016 as part of The Crunch, and initiative headed by the UK-wide Association of Science and Discovery Centres and supported by the Wellcome trust.

Our exhibit at a community-run event in Baxter Park Dundee on 28 July 2016 was called – Feel the Pulse – a display of beans and peas, which along with lentils are known as ‘pulses’ (images below).

lf_noim_crnch_flthpls_fddrnk_gs_1100

Why pulses? They yield a highly nutritious, plant protein that can be grown without nitrogen fertiliser because the plants themselves fix nitrogen gas from the air into their own bodies. Nitrogen is essential for plant growth, but in its mineral form (from bags of fertiliser) can be a serious pollutant, contaminating streams and drinking water.

Once, peas and beans were widely grown and eaten, but the arrival of industrially made nitrogen fertiliser about 100 years ago and the ready import of plant protein from other countries caused pulses to decline as crops.

lf_noim_crnch_flthpls_fldbn_gs_1100

Yet today, pulses are widely acclaimed for their benefits to health and the environment. The field bean Vicia faba crops above were grown locally without nitrogen fertiliser. They also offered a habitat and refuge for insects and small animals.

Is there a way to turn the tide – to farm more locally-grown cereal and legume produce, use less mineral N and support a cleaner environment.

We believe there is but one of the first things to do is to increase awareness of the benefits of peas and beans and similar products.

lf_noim_crnch_flthpls_bp_gs_1100

Our exhibit – Feel the Pulse – shows some of the things that are being done, such as finding types of peas and beans suited to the local conditions, comparing the nutritional value of different pulses and finding new pulse-based products for the market, for example bean bread and bean beer, both made from field bean flour. 

Sources, links

Feel the pulse at Picnic in the Park, Baxter Park Dundee, 28 July 2016. Part of The Crunch at Dundee Science Centre.

Contact for pulses: pete.iannetta@hutton.ac.uk

At the event: Pete Iannetta, Philip White, Geoff Squire and Stephanie Frischie, a doctoral student visiting from the NASSTEC (Native Seeds) programme: www.nasstec.eu/home

See also: Bere and cricket

Food production from the first crops to the present day

Sponsored by Dunkeld and Birnam Historical Society and the Dunkeld and Birnam Community Growing Group (The Field) at Birnam Arts, 23 November 2015, 7.30

A survey of crops and croplands – from domestication 10,000 years ago, through the arrival here of settled agriculture in the late stone age; through the developments of bronze and iron to the ill years of the 1600s; through the major improvements in the 1700s that gave hope; through the technology of the 1900s that eventually removed the threat of famine; to the subsequent choice between sustainability and exploitation, and society choosing the latter; to the present state of soil degradation and reliance on imports for food security; and to a sustainable future, perhaps … with some tales along the way of life and farming when horse was the quickest way along the A9.


More …

Settled agriculture is a recent experiment in human history. Domestication of crops from wild plants, as recently as 10,000 years ago, produced the wheat, barley, maize and rice that we know and eat today. Maize and potato were domesticated in the Americas and could not cross the Atlantic at that time and rice was too far away in Asia, but wheat, barley and oat came by land and sea across Europe to the north Atlantic seaboard where around 5000 years ago, they found a welcoming soil and a mild climate.

The grain crops enabled a settled society. In good years, there was food to last the winter, giving time to think and make things. Stability allowed people to learn the skill and enterprise to trade in the new technologies of bronze and iron that came across Europe centuries later. Waves of migration, Celts and Romans included, caused no great change to the basic type of grain and stock-farming of the region. A neolithic farmer, teleported here for the day, would recognise our crops and farm animals (except neeps and tatties which weren’t here in their day).

Yet time, ignorance and oppression took their toll: centuries of misuse, the principles of soil fertility unappreciated or ignored. Soils exhausted and yields dropping to subsistence levels. Agriculture unable to cope with the run of poor weather in the late 1600s? Starvation and famine.

Then came the age of improvement after 1700 – lime, fertiliser, turnips and other tuber crops, the levelling of the rigs, removal of stones, drainage, new machines for cultivation, sowing and harvest, the global search for guano, the coordinated management of crop and stock – benefits that allowed outputs to rise in the 1700s, but not yet to the point where famine was memory. That came later. It was not until the technological developments of the 1900s – industrially made and mined fertiliser, pesticides and advanced genetic types – that the threat of hunger was finally dispelled from north-west Europe.

But these same technologies opened the way for excess and instability. They encouraged the breaking of two established links that had held cropped agriculture since it began here.

The first was that grain and other crops no longer relied on grazing land or grass crops for manure. Grain could be grown more frequently, on more area and with more inputs – eventually encouraging a phase of intensification after 1950 that increased yield but in many places to the detriment of soil and the wider environment, and now with a diminishing return from inputs.

The second was that local production became separated from local consumption. The increasing wealth and global trade of the 1900s – the legacy of the industrial revolution – meant that people no longer relied for their subsistence on what was grown in local fields. This second decoupling became so great that by the 1990s, all cereal carbohydrate eaten in Scotland, except oat, was grown elsewhere and imported.

There are some big questions therefore. Will intensification continue to degrade soils and even start to drive down output? And is our food supply now too vulnerable to external influence – disruption by global terrorism, variation in world cereal harvests, future phosphate wars and volcanic eruption?

So what of the future! Yields are still high. Agriculture is diverse and diversifying in its margins. But threats to soil and food security will increase and need to be tackled. Technology alone will not solve the problems.

Geoff Squire

James Hutton Institute, Dundee UK

The speaker illustrated his talk with some ancient cereals and a bag of grain, all grown in the Living Field garden.

The quotations from Andrew Wight’s journals from his travels by horse are now available free online:

Wight, A. 1778-1784. Present State of Husbandry in Scotland. Extracted from Reports made to the Commissioners of the Annexed Estates, and published by their authority. Edinburgh: William Creesh. Vol I, Vol II, Vol III Part I, Vol III Part II, Vol IV part II, Volume IV Part II. All available online via Google Books.

His notes on bere, oat and flax in the region of Dunkeld and Birnam will appear in a later article on this web site. Any further enquiries: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

The Tay at Dunkeld looking East, March 2015 (squire / living field)
The Tay at Dunkeld looking East, March 2015 (squire / living field)